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When readers opened the premiere issue of THE CONCRETE PRODUCER in January 1997, they discovered a construction forecast that predicted a slow year. A residential downturn would be offset by steady growth in commercial and non-residential work, we reported.

Economists in 1997 expected decent growth in the public sector, due to favorable federal spending, and a healthy commercial market, especially for hotels and educational facilities.

Although it sounds familiar, the concrete industry has come a long way in the past decade. Ready-mixed production topped 348 million cubic yards a decade ago, and in less than 10 years, the figure has increased by more than 100 million yards.

Production for 2006 is expected to be very close 2005's 456 million yards, based on the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association's (NRMCA) annual production statistics. “The numbers had been tracking ahead of 2005 until we had a dip in November,” says Gary Mullings, NRMCA's vice president, operations and compliance. “This was due to a reduction in housing construction, and we expect to see the same results for December.”

For budget-conscious producers, the steady climb over the last decade may have felt more like a roller coaster ride. There have certainly been enough obstacles to keep the industry on its toes.

Cement shortages, notably in 2004 and 2005, proved the old saying about necessity being the mother of invention. Materials like slag, fly ash, and silica fume began playing a larger role in mix designs to control costs and replace cement. Innovative new products, like high-performance concrete, stimulated demand for concrete as a building material of choice.

The green movement

At the same time, sustainable development gained steam. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), established in 1993, created the first version of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system five years later. “Alternative” materials became more commonly known as “recycled” materials, giving concrete a new, environmentally friendly image.

Today, the USGBC is fully accredited as a national standards developer by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The group expects its first ANSI standard to be completed later this year to set a baseline for high-performance green buildings in the commercial marketplace. Producers at the forefront of the green building movement will almost certainly benefit from the profitability of sustainability.

Mullings suggests another underlying current has helped keep production up. “The reason we are at record heights today, and have been growing at a very steady rate since the early 90's, is the computerization and modernization of our industry,” he says. From personal computers and cell phones, to batching controls and truck tracking systems, automation has made producers more efficient.

As producers consider new technologies to ensure productivity into the next decade, they should be mindful of their most important asset: people. More education and retention programs are geared toward attracting and keeping the most qualified employees.

The investment is worthwhile. Concrete producers employed more than 107,000 people in 2005, compared to 93,000 employees in 1997, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Annual Survey of Manufactures. With the right resources, they will be the key to continued innovation, and another decade of success.